Gaye LeBaron: Homelessness and poverty are not new problems in Sonoma County
About two weeks ago, when Oakmont residents were meeting to discuss their new neighbors across Highway 12, a Hidden Valley resident went on the social media site Nextdoor to suggest The Press Democrat republish one of my columns from more than 30 years ago.
The column, she wrote, detailed the establishment of Santa Rosa’s Poor Farm in the 1870s.
Her message was asking us to remember that homelessness and poverty are not new problems. Her post:
“Our city fathers established a farm on Chanate Hill with those living there participating in growing grain, vegetables and raising of livestock to feed themselves, the hospital and jail. It was at one time the most profitable farm in the county. They did not rush out and throw down money to buy houses but instead built barns and gave people a purpose. Moving people to a parking lot does nothing to help them help themselves. The article should be republished.”
REPUBLICATION (which is not the political term it sounds like) is an honor I have reserved for one very old Thanksgiving column. So that’s not going to happen. However, when people began to forward the post to me from several directions, I felt compelled to, at least, read it again from where we are today.
I didn’t have to wade into the musty reaches of the old Press Democrat “morgue,” where clippings were stored the old-fashioned way in 1987. A couple clicks online and it popped up, digitized in my archive site at Sonoma State’s Schulz Library.
It is a brief history of the Poor Farm established by the county (not city) government here in 1875 for men and women (in separate quarters) who were “not sick” but could not support themselves. A few, I suppose, were able-bodied idlers. Others were alcoholics, some were addicted to the drugs of the day, and some were, as people termed it then “unhinged.” All were described by whatever term was popular at the time — tramp, vagrant, transient and others even less polite.
Any or all of these could, and often did, result in incarceration. Idling on the streets of any town could get you arrested for “having no visible means of support.” And you would go to jail — or to the Poor Farm. Most of the occupancy was anything but optional.
THAT 1987 COLUMN was background to a then-current event. The county had plans to build a parking lot on the opposite side of Chanate Road from the hospital on the hill.
By ’87, the name had been changed from County Hospital (where all the physicians in the area worked without charging patients a fee) to Community Hospital, and its services were no longer reserved for people who could not pay. “Indigents” they called them in the old days.
But parking lot designers and county officials discovered something that stopped things cold: graves — hundreds of graves, most of them unmarked.
Graves, as we know, can stop freeway construction colder than a 20-truck pileup on Donner Pass in winter. Hereto unknown burials have stopped 20-story apartment buildings, shopping malls and all those things regarded by 1987 as progress.
Ultimately, those graves would catch the attention of a retired Silicon Valley engineer named Jeremy Nichols, who would dig through old records to find whose names belonged on those graves, restore the cemetery markers and collect more information than anyone ever had about the county facility known as the Poor Farm, where most of the occupants of those forgotten graves had lived the last day of their lives.